Internet On The Road

Before we went on the road in 2005, our main technological issue was how to access the internet as full-timers.

Here are the factors that we considered:

  • Ability to access the internet from anywhere in the country
  • Reliability, consistency, and speed
  • Ease of set-up and connection
  • Up front cost of equipment
  • Ongoing access costs
  • Adaptability with technological advances

    Of those factors, being able to access the internet in the remotest part of the United States was the most important to us. If we were going to do this full-time RVing thing, we knew we would want to explore the unpopulated areas of this great country. And since running a website was sort of going to be a "business", we needed to access the internet from anywhere.

    What We Knew

    With a little research, it became clear that the speeds we knew through our cable modem at the house were not going to be there on the road.

    We also knew that the monthly cost of internet access, if we wanted it in our rig everywhere (even at slower speeds), was going to be higher on the road than what we had at home.

    The Options

    The options back in 2005 are basically the same as they are now. However, with improvements in technology, the analysis is a little different.

    The following three methods of internet connections for RVers dominate the landscape. They all have pros and cons and none of them alone are the perfect solution.

  • Wi-Fi
  • Cellular Broadband
  • Satellite

    Now, those are the methods for those that use the internet every day or every day they can. For those that don't do a lot of web surfing or internet research, there are other ways to access the internet on the road such as going to public libraries or just asking around.

    But, we're going to talk about the most common methods of accessing the internet in the comfort of your RV.

    Quick Summary

    Let's start with some overall conclusions that might help guide you along.

    Wi-Fi is the least expensive, but also the most unreliable as to access and speed.

    Cellular is vastly better and more consistent than Wi-Fi, but it's not available everywhere. The initial set-up is much more expensive than Wi-Fi, but much less expensive than satellite. The monthly costs are much more than Wi-Fi, and a little less than satellite. Speeds can be the best of the three in most places, but can be only slightly better than dial-up in some places.

    Satellite allows you to get internet anywhere in the continental United States as well as some parts of Mexico and Canada. But it comes at a high upfront cost and a high monthly cost. The speeds are consistent - better than the worst cellular, but not as good as the best cellular. But it still is the ONLY way to get internet in the remotest parts of America.

    Each option is detailed below.

    Wi-Fi
    Contrary to many beliefs Wi-Fi is not an abbreviation for Wireless Fidelity. The term was developed as a play on words on "Hi-Fi" or High Fidelity, because the technology is radio technology and Wi-Fi is just catchier than the technical name. :)

    When we started, Wi-Fi was still not readily available in most campgrounds so reliance on being able to find Wi-Fi hotspots was not an option. A Wi-Fi hotspot is simply an access point where wireless devices can connect to the internet.

    Many campgrounds/RV parks are now offering Wi-Fi to guests. Some offer free Wi-Fi while others use a subscription Wi-Fi service where you can "purchase" Wi-Fi internet time. Free Wi-Fi is being used by campgrounds, restaurants, coffee shops, motels, etc. as an incentive to guests. However, there are still many places where Wi-Fi can only be accessed with a fee.

    Where free Wi-Fi exists, all you need is a computer (or mobile device) with a wireless adapter (sometimes referred to as a card, but not all wireless adapters are cards). In the store, they may be called a "Wi-Fi Adapter" or a "Wireless LAN (local area network) Adapter". If you have an old computer, you can get a wireless adapter that plugs directly into one of your ports for less than $50 (usually much less). However, most newer laptops come with a wireless adapter built right in so there is no additional cost. Some newer cell phones come with an internal wireless adapter.

    But, according to Jim & Chris at Geeks On Tour, they don't recommend either a built-in wireless adapter or a plug-in card-type adapter for you laptop. Because "line of sight" to the Wi-Fi access point is so important, they recommend getting a wireless adapter that plugs into a USB port on your laptop via a USB cable. That's an important distinction - the card itself isn't plugged into the laptop, a cable runs from the laptop USB port to the external wireless adapter. With a cable, you can move the adapter around and place it in your rig (or even outside your rig weather permitting) to give you better "line of sight". The longer your USB cable, the more options you have with placement of the adapter so you can experiment to get the best signal.

    Wi-Fi is becoming more prevalent across the U.S. Some states have Wi-Fi at rest areas, and a few states are experimenting with putting Wi-Fi in their state park campgrounds. Some federal facilities are also installing Wi-Fi for guests. But, for the most part, Wi-Fi networks are growing the fastest at private businesses.

    Some campgrounds/RV parks have "open" or "unsecured" networks. That basically means that you can access the internet just by connecting via your laptop - no access code is necessary. But many have "secured" networks and you have to get an access code from the office. That simply prevents those that are not staying in the campground from clogging up the network.

    So, you've decided that Wi-Fi is all you will need on the road. It's cheap, it's getting more widespread, and it doesn't get much easier once you figure out how to connect to a network.

    Well here are some caveats. Just because a campground advertises "Free Wi-Fi", that doesn't mean you will get Wi-Fi in your site. Wi-Fi coverage in a campground is limited by the type of network, the capability of the wireless router the campground is using, whether or not there is a signal amplifier, whether or not there are signal repeater antennas, the amount of trees, your wireless adapter, and a few other factors. Remember, "line of sight" to the access point is very important when connecting to a Wi-Fi signal.

    If a campground just has Wi-Fi around the office, you may only get a signal if you are parked near the office. Even if there are repeater antennas used to transmit the signal to the far reaches of the campground, your particular site may not get a good signal. And even if you get a good signal, the underlying system may just not be that good or the speed may be slow or there may be too many users for the network to support effectively. Wi-Fi signals and speeds can be very, very inconsistent from one hotspot to another, from one campground to another, from one campsite to another, and from one computer to another.

    Maybe that's okay. But for serious internet users reliant on Wi-Fi, it's best to understand the limitations and how to overcome some of those limitations.

    One method is to get a USB wireless adapter with a long cable as we mentioned before. To improve on that, you can run the cable outside and get the adapter up on top of the rig with some homemade weatherproofing like some of the creative folks the Gulds have run into. Or you can get a wireless adapter with an external antenna port so you can connect an antenna to the adapter and just have the antenna up on your roof. Or you can just buy a combination adapter/antenna like the WaveRV from RadioLabs for under $200.

    Just keep in mind, even if you have the best equipment to pick up a Wi-Fi signal, that Wi-Fi is limited. If you need internet daily, you may have to plan your travels around hotspots (search for hotspots on JiWire Hotspot Finder and Wi-Fi-Free-Spot) rather than around places you want to visit. And count on Wi-Fi being terribly inconsistent in signal and speed as you travel.

    The good news is that it is cheap, easy, and service continues to expand. :)

    Cellular Internet
    When we started, internet via cellular technology just wasn't a viable option for us either. The coverage areas for cellular data were limited to metropolitan areas, places we didn't want to be.

    However, cellular data technology and coverage has advanced more in the last few years than any of the mobile internet technologies. When we started out, some people were using their cell phones to connect to the internet basically using their cell phone minutes for, in effect, a dial-up type service.

    Since I didn't keep up with the data development of the cellular networks, I'm not sure exactly how it all came about, but suddenly those using their voice minutes for data were getting extraordinarly large bills for the data usage. Before long, cellular plans divided distinctly between voice and data. I don't think it's too important how it came to be that way, but now there are clear rules for cellular internet access.

    The cellular companies have all developed similar data plans. The plans are only as good as the cellular network's coverage although the coverage areas are rapidly increasing. It is because the coverage is increasing so fast that the cellular internet option is viable for even remote parts of the U.S. and is a great alternative for most RVers, especially those that stick closer to interstates and populated areas.

    Aircards

    The most common data plans for RVers require a 2-year agreement for broadband service at a price of about $60 a month for 5GB of data per month. Most RVers get an "aircard" (which basically serves as a cellular "modem") OR a combination aircard/wireless router such as a "MiFi" (more on the MiFi and cellular routers later).

    Note: A cellular aircard (generic term for wireless modem, which is slowly becoming the preferred term) is much like a Wi-Fi adapter discussed above. That tends to cause confusion because the different types of each look very similar though the technologies are different. Now, the newer cellular aircards are also Wi-Fi capable, but not the other way around. :)

    Though there are numerous cellular companies, RVers usually need national coverage, so we'll only focus on the major national companies: Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

    Aircards and MiFis are cellular carrier specific. In other words, they work only on the network for which they were purchased (i.e. Verizon aircards won't work on the Sprint network or AT&T network and the same goes for Sprint and AT&T aircards).

    Okay. So, assuming you don't mind the 2-year contract and the $60 per month, and you want daily internet access, and you will be in cellular coverage areas most of the time, what's next? That's where it gets tricky.

    Each national cellular company (basically Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, & T-Mobile) have their own system-compatible aircards. You can get a basic aircard for under $100. However, we recommend that you spend more (usually between $100 - $200) to get an aircard with an external antenna port. Now, I'll try to explain why. Oh boy. :)

    You've probably heard the terms 2g, 3g, and 4g. Well, those are simply shortcuts for saying "second generation", "third generation", and "fourth generation", respectively, of standards for mobile networking. Of course, each succeeding generation means improved technology (and speed) for us consumers. Understanding the actual technology behind each generation isn't necessary for this discussion.

    Now, the cellular companies keep upgrading their equipment to meet the new standards, however, some of their coverage areas don't meet the new standards, so they remain in the prior generation.

    For example, our cell phones in many of the rural areas we camp show a 1X signal. That means we are in a 1XRTT zone which is 2g technology. We can only get average internet uploads and downloads of 50Kbps (Kilobytes per second) - 100 Kbps with gusts a bit higher than that. We're about double the speed of a 56K dial-up connection. As cellular goes, 1XRTT is one step up from getting no signal at all. :)

    Now, you've probably also heard the term EVDO. That stands for "Evolution Data-Optimized" - big deal. :) Well if you are in an EVDO area, "EVDO" or "EV" shows up on your cell phone. That means you are in a 3g technology area. Yep, faster than the 2g 1XRTT.

    Okay, so the first EVDO networks were what they call Rev-0 (400Kbps - 1000Kbps download and 50Kbps - 100Kbps upload). Now the EVDO networks are being upgraded to Rev-A which is faster than EVDO Rev-0. EVDO Rev-A has typical internet download speeds of 600Kbps - 1400Kbps and typical internet upload speeds of 500Kbps - 800Kbps. Much, much faster than the 2g 1XRTT.

    Of course, 4g is on the way which will eventually take the place of 3g networks and will give cellular customers even higher speeds. As of right now, however, 4g is very limited.

    Back to cellular aircards. First, don't fall into the trap of buying a computer with an internal or "embedded" aircard. They are dedicated to a particular carrier, they are hard to replace if you change carriers or they go bad, and you cannot use it with a router (more on that later).

    So, if you want cellular internet to be your primary internet connection, get an external aircard for whichever company you choose. But, as we said before, spend the extra money and get an aircard with an external antenna port. Here's why.

    Say you are in an area where you can't get a cell signal or it goes in and out. By having an aircard with an antenna port, you can connect the aircard to a cellular amplifier and external antenna. That extends your cellular range.

    So, with the amplifier and antenna, you may be able to get a signal where you otherwise could not and, therefore, get internet. Or, you may be able to get a better, more stable signal so you don't constantly lose connection. Or, you may be able to bring in an EVDO signal in an area where you would otherwise have just a 1XRTT signal and speed up your internet connection.

    In my opinion, any full-timer relying on a cellular aircard for internet should be sure to get 1) an aircard with an external antenna port, 2) an adapter to connect directly to a cellular amplifier, 3) a cellular amplifier, 4) an external antenna to connect to the amplifier, and 5) a cellular router so you can plug your aircard directly into the router rather than your computer.

    By plugging the aircard into the router, you create your own Wi-Fi hotspot and can use multiple computers off the single aircard. It is important to get a "cellular router". You can't just use any old router. You need one that "understands" how to deal with the cellular signal. The total cost of all that should be $800 or less not including the $60 per month data plan fee. Of course, you could just go with a basic aircard and nothing else for less than $100 and see how that works. But, if you like remote campgrounds, you'll eventually add the other equipment. :)

    Other Cellular Options

    Lower Monthly Rate

    Though I'm not sure why anyone would do it, you can get a data plan for $40 a month that includes 250MB (megabytes) a month. For only $20 more a month you get 20 times the internet usage 5GB (gigabytes). The $40 plan still requires an aircard and a 2-year contract.

    Day Pass

    If you have an aircard, but don't want to sign a contract and just need to use the internet occasionally or as a back-up for another internet option, Verizon offers a Day Pass. A Day Pass gives you 24 hours of broadband internet for $15. Again, no contract, but you have to call Verizon to activate and de-activate.

    Tethering (aka Phone-As-Modem)

    This is an excellent option for those that 1) don't want to sign a 2-year contract, 2) need cellular internet for a single trip, or 3) want to use cellular internet as a back-up. This is the option we chose as a back-up for our satellite internet when we are parked in the trees and can't get a satellite signal.

    Here's how it works. You don't need an aircard. But you do need a cell phone that can be "tethered". Not all cell phones that can access the internet can be tethered. The phone has to have a port that can be connected via a USB cable to a laptop or a cellular router.

    Although all the aircards are 3g EVDO Rev-A capable, only a relatively few cell phones are both tetherable and Rev-A capable. Of course the Rev-A capable part is only important if you want the fastest internet speed AND you are in a Rev-A network area. :)

    To get started, you have to call the cellular company and tell them to activate tethering. Depending on the company you will be charged somewhere around $50 per month. If you don't want to use the whole month, you have to call back and de-activate. You are then given credit for the days during the month you didn't use.

    You connect the phone to your computer via a USB cable. However, if you want to be able to access the internet on two computers, you can connect the phone to a cellular router. The cell companies recently starting supporting cellular routers that they sell. However, there are other third party routers out there that have been tested and work well.

    We use a router and then use our internal Wi-Fi cards on our laptops to connect to the internet signal. To boost our cellular signal, we also have the phone attached to an amplifier and antenna.

    Think this Cellular Internet section is confusing? Well, it could be a lot worse, but I've kept some of the more technical stuff out of it. :)

    Satellite Internet

    Although cellular broadband is catching up, satellite internet still provides the best overall coverage throughout the continental United States.

    As long as you can get a clear view of the southern sky, you can get satellite internet access anywhere in the continental United States. And it is consistent. As we discussed above, even though cellular data coverage is increasing, the actual technology available can be inconsistent.

    Most of the satellite assignments will even get you coverage in the southern parts of Canada and northern Mexico. Expanded coverage exists with certain satellites and service plans.

    Now satellite internet requires a satellite dish (looks like a big satellite TV dish), a "receiver" or "radio", a modem, and a cable connection from the dish to the modem.

    The dish itself is basically a big reflector. It gathers the satellite signal and reflects it to the receiver which is located at the end of the arm sticking out from the dish. Most people think it's that arm that is pointing to the satellite in space - it's not.

    That arm simply holds the receiver which is facing the dish. It is the dish that has to be pointed in the right direction and that corrals the satellite signal. The signal is coming in from a much higher angle than where the arm is ... "pointed".

    So, the receiver gathers in the signal from the dish and it is transferred via a cable to the satellite internet modem. The modem unscrambles the signal into an internet signal that can be used by our computers.

    Though you can certainly plug your computer into the modem directly, most people plug a wireless router into the modem. The modem then transfers the internet signal to the wireless router. The router pushes the signal out into the air where we can pick up the signal wirelessly on our laptops (or any computer with a wireless adapter).

    Voila! Our own Wi-Fi hotspot. :)